Once upon a time, our sense of smell was as keen as a canine’s nose. We could smell a mastodon a mile away and catch the scent of strangers before their menacing shapes materialized on the horizon of the vast and lonely veldt. Enemies had their odors, but so did kin and clan; males selected mates by sniffing out the unmistakable smell of fecundity, and females swooned to the surefire scent of males who could bring home the bacon.
Every human being had a smell as unique as a fingerprint and, like dogs of the present day, we identified others by their particular odors. This is the origin of what we call the smell test. So finely calibrated were our olfactory engines that we could discern more than just gross physical differences. It is well known that dogs can smell fear, and such was the case with our early ancestors. (Laboratory scientists have been working for centuries to capture the essence of fear and, in 1979, a Norwegian biochemist named Lars Olstead was awarded the prestigious Fickinger Prize for proving that fear smells like boiled Brussels sprouts.)
In the remote ages of the world, our smell was far more reliable than our other senses. The eye and ear can be tricked, and not only is the sense of taste limited by what can be put in the mouth, it needs the protection of preliminary nosework to prevent death by poisoning. So infallible, in fact, is our sense of smell that it was the agency by which we assigned names to our fellow human creatures. Linguists have long established the metaphorical nature of language, and names are no exception. Thus, a person emitting the odor of a thing, either animate or inanimate, would be named after that particular thing.
We, therefore, find a profusion of people named Apple or Wood or Rose or Wolf or Lake. Human names not immediately suggestive of objects, either sentient or insentient, in the human environment can be traced to those objects whose names have been distorted by translation, errors in transliteration, or generational transmission. For instance, the common name Smith is actually an old Welsh term for artificially buttered popcorn.
As civilization has advanced, our keen sense of smell has diminished to the point that we can distinguish only a few basic smells. The cause of that decline can principally be attributed to the growth of the perfume industry, which, according to Dr. Hyrum Foote of the Center for Sensory Studies, has obliterated our capacity to respond meaningfully to our odorous environment.
“We have been deodorized to death,” said Foote in a phone interview. “Why do you want to smell like a flower instead of a human being?”
Foote said there are experiments underway to restore our powers of smell. “It is crucial that we recover our capacity to employ the smell test, which is now only a figurative term for detecting fraud, phoniness, folly, etc. Had our powers of smell been intact in recent history, no way would people like George W. Bush or Dick Cheney be in charge of the world.”
According to Foote, olfactory experts at the Center for Sensory Studies—people who, through some genetic quirk, have retained the power to sniff out the truth—have determined that Bush carries the distinct odor of idiocy, which smells like a wad of stale gum. Dick Cheney stinks of corruption, which has the odor of an old movie-theater seat.
Foote’s olfactory experts are currently studying the smells of the present crop of presidential candidates. Preliminary findings are in, though the experts have to correlate the smells with qualities of character, competence and intellectual capacity.
“You’ll just have to draw your own conclusions,” said Foote, who then provided the following list of smell results: Among the Democrats, John Edwards smells like peach cobbler; Joe Biden like Aqua Velva and Juicy Fruit gum; Hillary Clinton like a plastic-wrapped polyester pants suit fresh from the dry cleaner; and Barack Obama like a smoky, single-malt whiskey.
Among the Republican hopefuls, Fred Thompson smells like the first time a furnace goes on, Rudy Giuliani like cheesy bowling shoes, John McCain like a burned-out Fourth of July sparkler. We asked Foote why our own Mitt Romney was not on the list.
“So far, we have not been able to detect a core smell. Sometimes we detect talcum powder, other times cheap air freshener. We don’t know what he’s covering up. Maybe there’s nothing there.”
D.P. Sorensen writes satire for City Weekly.